Battle in the Clouds

In the Colombian Andes, ecosystems are disappearing faster than scientists can study them.

photo of a machine-gun pointed out the door of a helicopter, flying over a misty forested landscapephotos Jeremy KrytClick on this photo to enlarge it and view a slideshow.

“From up here you can see it – the land is dying.” Colombian Park Ranger Diomar Castro is standing at the edge of a sheer cliff about 9,000 feet high in the Andes’ Central Cordillera. Castro waves his machete at the denuded, yellow foothills far below. “Twenty years ago that was a cloud forest,” he says with a shrug.

I’ve been reading about Colombia’s deforestation troubles – as much as 1,864 square miles are lost annually to legal and illegal logging, and scientists say a third of the country’s forest cover has been cut down. Even so, I’m not ready for the vista Castro has brought me to. Mile after mile of treeless, erosion-scarred hilltops stretch to the horizon – a panorama that looks more like Arizona than the Andean jungle.

“What was forest is now pasture,” Castro says, hitching up his pack as he begins to climb again. “In another 20 years it will be desert.”

Castro and I are out on patrol this afternoon near the edge of Park Puracé, in the Cauca region of southern Colombia. Because of the extreme elevation, Puracé is home to unique and highly endangered ecosystems made up of plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. The park sprawls over 320 square miles and includes both the ever-cloudy, high montane rainforest and, farther up – between the treeline and the snowline – the alpine tundra known locally as the páramo. Cauca is also home to several well-armed insurgent groups that rely on the fastness of Colombia’s mountain wildernesses to avoid government forces and sometimes take shelter in national parks like Puracé. Although faced with covering vast distances and hostile forces, most rangers patrol the forests on foot. With so much of the government budget tied up in Colombia’s civil war the Parks Department can’t afford to purchase or maintain four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Much of the deforestation in Colombia is driven by commercial logging and local settlers’ need for pasture and cropland. But leftist guerrillas and right-wing militias are also responsible for cutting down vast swaths of jungle to plant illicit drug crops like coca, opium poppy, and cannabis to fund their agendas. Studies have shown that as much as 25 percent of annual deforestation in Colombia is caused by illegal coca production alone. The various insurgencies – especially the largest and best-equipped rebellion by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – pose grave risks for rangers, biologists, and conservation workers in the region.

In an attempt to end 50 years of civil war, peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC began in Havana, Cuba, last November. So far the talks have yielded little progress. No ceasefire is in effect and the fighting actually intensified in the early months of 2013.

Despite the danger, Castro prefers to be unarmed. “It’s better this way,” he says. “If I did have a gun, [the guerrillas] would just take [it] away from me.”

As we trek deeper within the park, the signs of agriculture fade, the forest cover visibly improves, and so does Castro’s mood. “This is what a healthy cloud forest should look like,” he says, pointing, as we top a rise to see an unbroken emerald canopy below. A dense mist is rising from the river valley, slowly blotting out the trees. Through the mist, quetzal birds call out to their mates in a high, haunting treble.

“I never get tired of looking at it,” Castro says, peering at the forest. A youthful 42, with thick black hair and a ready laugh, Castro has spent his entire adult life as a park ranger. For the past five years he has lived in a tiny cabin in the heart of Park Puracé, honing his knowledge of these mountains. As we patrol, he stops frequently to point out game trails and scat. “I know I don’t have the easiest job in the world,” the ranger admits. “But every day it feels like I’ve got an opportunity to make a real difference. I don’t like to think of a future without any cloud forests.”

Castro is right to be concerned. Colombia is one of the most biologically diverse nations on Earth, boasting 10 percent of the world’s plant and animal species. But if deforestation continues at current rates, scientists estimate the nation’s woodlands will be depleted within 40 years. Loss of forest cover is bad enough at low-lying elevations, but it’s especially devastating on the slopes of the Andes, where scores of narrow-range, endemic species have evolved to take advantage of the habitat niches created by sudden changes in altitude.

“Colombia’s montane [ecosystems] are much reduced and very fragmented.… Its species are in serious trouble,” Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation at Duke University, wrote in an email to me. According to Pimm’s research staff, as much as 70 percent of all Andean ecosystems have already been compromised by deforestation, mining, and overgrazing. “We know that as areas become fragmented the species in them go extinct quickly,” writes Pimm, who led an expedition that discovered 15 new high-altitude species in Colombia in 2011. “It’s no good having lots of forest if it’s all in small pieces.”

The Colombian cloud forest begins at about 7,500 feet, where the lowland jungle meets the steep-rising slopes of the Andes. As the climate cools and oxygen thins, both vegetation and local animal species undergo a dwarfing effect, becoming smaller to maximize scarce resources. The world’s smallest deer species, the northern pudú, is found here, as are dwarf subspecies of oak, acacia, and cypress that have evolved to “drink” with their leaves, extracting water from the ever-present fog. The elfin woods are strikingly colorful, laced with bright-red mosses and epiphytes. Tapir, puma, and Andean bear wander the undergrowth and gather at the many thermal springs to bathe and drink. (The park is named after the smoldering Puracé Volcano, which towers over the landscape.)

Above the cloud forests, as the Andes continue to rise, the dwarfing trend continues until the trees give way to brush. At the edge of the treeline, around 11,500 feet, lies the páramo – a weirdly beautiful, tundra-like ecosystem unlike anything else on the planet. These alpine moors are covered by vividly-colored, low-lying brush and deep moss beds, as well as vast fields of the extraterrestrial-looking espeletia, which the Colombians call frailejon. The frailejon can grow up to a dozen feet tall and are topped with broad, silky leaves that trap condensed water and funnel it underground. It’s a landscape that, as Pimm puts it, “looks like something out of a science fiction film.”

image of cattle grazing on a hillside in the cloudsJeremy KrytCows graze on the slopes of Mt. Puracé. Overgrazing is one of the biggest dangers to the páramo.

But the páramo isn’t just pretty to look at. The moss and other vegetation act like a giant sponge, soaking up rainwater, preventing erosion, and feeding lowland rivers and lakes during the dry season. Although the páramo accounts for less than 2 percent of the land in Colombia, it provides about 70 percent of the nation’s drinking water. And, like the cloud forests, these high, rolling heaths are in big trouble – battered by mining, overgrazing, climate change, and the nation’s decades-long civil war.

“For the Indigenous, the páramo was always a holy spot,” Castro says. “The shamans would go there. The old chiefs, when they wanted guidance, went there to fast and pray. They understood, maybe better than we do now, the true value of these places.”

Like glaciers and coral reefs, the high-altitude ecosystems of the Andes have proven extremely susceptible to climate change. Scientists say these highlands are undergoing elevated extremes of both maximum and minimum temperatures – considerably more so than lower elevations – and that certain species have started to shift their natural ranges due to these long-term climactic fluctuations.

“What we’ve seen is that, as the weather gets gradually warmer, cold-loving endemic species have been forced to move up in elevation,” says Juan Pablo Martinez, a biologist at the University of Cauca in the regional capital of Popayan. “Unfortunately, that coping strategy doesn’t work in isolated or lower ranges – because the species can only go so high before they run out of mountain. At that point they die out, and an entire evolutionary lineage is lost forever.” Despite regular field trips to the cloud forest and páramo, Martinez says he feels as if he’s not doing enough to preserve rare forms of orchids, amphibians, birds, and even mammals. “These species are literally disappearing faster than they can be catalogued,” he says.

The impact of habitat loss and climate change on avian species is a special area of focus for Pimm and his team. Colombia has the highest bird diversity in the world, with 18 percent of the world’s species in less than 1 percent of its ice-free land surface.

“If all of the mining concessions were fulfilled, there would be no place to live.”

Endangered species include the yellow-eared parrot, at least two types of tanager, and the giant Andean condor. Pimm’s latest research shows the ranges of endemic avian species in Colombia are “between 50 and 90 percent” smaller than previously thought. But Pimm cautions that the loss of forest and montane wetlands impacts a wide variety of animals and plants. “It is surely not just bird species!” Pimm writes. “It’s just that we know them the best. All [Andean] species are in trouble.”

Another source of trouble is what University of Cauca’s Martinez calls “Bogota’s new craze for mining.”

“The political elite have decided that we should become a global mining superpower – no matter what the cost,” he says. Colombia is rich in gold, coal, and precious gems. Mining currently makes up about a quarter of Colombia’s total exports (about $7.3 billion). Nationwide, transnational mining and oil companies have received, or have sought, concessions to develop a staggering 40 percent of Colombia’s territory. “If all of the [mining] concessions were fulfilled, there would be no place left for Colombians to live,” Martinez says. He adds that the official statistics don’t include the many illegal mines owned and operated by the FARC and other insurgent groups.

With its absorbent layers of moss, Colombia’s moors have proven particularly susceptible to the side effects of large-scale mining operations. “In the páramo, mercury and other mine tailings poison the water table for dozens of kilometers in all direction,” Martinez says, adding that at least 7 percent of the páramo has been claimed for mining. “A single open-pit gold mine … can translate to [tainted] drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people in the valleys below.”

photo of a tropical waterfallAll photos copyright Jeremy KrytThe San Nicholas cataract – at more than 60 feet, its the
highest waterfall in Park Puracé.
Click on this photo to view a slideshow.

Cloud forests and páramos are also under threat from impoverished farmers who have few other options for subsistence. Nearly half of Colombians live below the poverty line, but the figure is much higher in rural regions, where families often struggle to get by on just a few dollars a day. In the absence of other livelihood options, many are forced to turn to unsustainable practices like wildlife trafficking and the infamously unproductive slash-and-burn agriculture.

“It’s that kind of desperate, hand-to-mouth existence that makes life in a militia or guerrilla outfit so attractive,” Martinez says. Indeed, the decades-long civil war between FARC and the government has been waged almost exclusively over land rights for campesinos and Indigenous tribes. Land reform aimed at a more equitable distribution of property is the top agenda in the ongoing peace talks between the two parties.

In Colombia, less than 1 percent of the population owns about two-thirds of the land. The agricultural class conflict is dramatically illustrated in Park Puracé, which overlaps with a reserve belonging to the Indigenous Nasa tribe. Overcrowded conditions on the reserve make for a dire competition over water sources and arable land.

“If the government cared enough to help impoverished [Indigenous peoples and campesinos], they wouldn’t have to rely on the forests,” says Jesus Chavez, national representative of the Indigenous Regional Council of Cauca. “The people have no electricity to heat their homes. They have no gas to cook with. And then they blame us for cutting down trees. What do they want us do to – lay down and die?”

Nasa leaders say they need more grazing and cropland to support their growing numbers. They have petitioned officials in Bogota to allow them to annex the park as part of the reserve, which would eliminate existing restrictions on logging and farming. The government has yet to make a decision, but the Nasa’s request – and the possibility that the government might lift Puracé’s protected “national park” status – is a terrifying prospect for park ranger Castro.

“Colombia is a rich country,” he says. “We still have so much – so many natural resources. But a place like [Park Puracé] is a rare thing in the world. It would be tragic to see another last wild place torn down, and with cattle running everywhere, just because a few rich families won’t share their land with anyone else.”

Back in Puracé, ranger Castro raids the park’s abandoned cafeteria for firewood to heat the small cabin where he lives, alone, at 11,000 feet above sea level. “There used to be a museum and an auditorium here, too,” he says, tearing a plank out of the cafeteria floor. “But the guerrillas forced us to close everything.”

As part of the War on Drugs, the US has sent $2.1 billion in military aid to Colombia during the past five years – almost twice the amount sent to Mexico. All of that help from Uncle Sam initially allowed the government to win major victories against both insurgents and militias. Castro says the guerrillas’ presence in the park decreased considerably after a campaign in the mid-2000s, but the FARC has made a comeback in recent years. Fighting the insurgents eats up a tremendous share of the nation’s budget, leaving park rangers with few resources. The National Parks budget for 2013 is about $1.9 million; military spending is roughly $19.4 billion a year. “All the money goes to fight the war,” Castro says, breaking a floorboard with his machete. “So there’s nothing left for anything else.”

Castro says that to function effectively as a ranger it’s essential to remain neutral in the conflict. His off-the-grid cabin has been occupied at one time or another by the Colombian army and by guerrillas. He refuses to take sides.“If you say to one side or the other, ‘Come on in and sit by the fire tonight’ – well, the other side will hear of it. And next time they come through, you’re going to be in trouble,” he says. “The best thing is to be like the animals in the forest: Just mind your own business.”

Most Colombians are hoping the peace talks in Havana will succeed. Economists believe that an end to South America’s longest-running conflict could lead to an economic explosion. But there could be unintended consequences to rapid economic growth. Some caution that a post-peace boom could be the last nail in the coffin for endangered Andean ecosystems.

“There could be an ill effect, environmentally,” says Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, a DC-based think-tank. “The downside [of a peace agreement] could be unfettered exploitation of natural resources by both local and international corporations. Without the FARC as a barrier, as a deterrent to exploration in remote areas, problems like deforestation and over-mining could get a lot worse.”

Biologist Martinez agrees about the role FARC has played in limiting exploitation, even citing cases of the guerillas enforcing a green agenda by closing off over-logged parts of the mountains. “One of the big reasons we’ve seen deforestation increasing in the last few years is the series of victories bought by US dollars against the FARC,” Martinez says. Ultimately, though, Martinez sees the FARC as but a symptom of deeper problems plaguing Colombia. “It all comes back to poverty, to ignorance,” he says. “The people must be educated. And they must be given other options besides joining a drug gang or an insurgency.”

Ranger Castro says it might be even simpler. “The biggest enemy of the forests, of the páramo, is greed,” he says as he warms his hands over the stone hearth in his frigid cabin. “The old ways are forgotten, and exploiting the land is seen as just another way to make a profit.” He stirs his dying fire. “There are a lot of ways to make a profit. But once the forest is gone, once the animals are gone, no amount of money can bring them back.”

Jeremy Kryt is a Chicago-based journalist.

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